“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”
Forget Browning and all her permutations of love.
What about counting the amount of people you can love all at once?
Whatever number that is, surely it can’t take more than the fingers on one hand to sum them up (?).
Is it possible to be in love with more than one person at the same time?
It’s an interesting question, posed to me recently by a confused friend. And she’s obviously not the first in history who’s wondered.
My first instinct was to say no, simply because I’m a romantic and I like to think if you loved someone – truly, really loved them – surely you wouldn’t want to compromise them by developing feelings for another person?
I say “developing” deliberately, because love at first sight is rare (and perhaps altogether mythical); surely it takes plenty time, effort and intent to build up to all-out, heart beating fast, can’t-get-you-off-my-mind love.
Besides, if it was true love you felt the second you clapped your eyes on this other person and you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that you were meant to be with them, wouldn’t that make your current relationship altogether moot anyway?
Wouldn’t all the other loves that came before that fade away quietly into your past?
All that was what the romantic in me really want to believe, but if there’s anything I’ve learned about love it’s that it comes in all shapes, forms and sizes. And it’s rarely clear-cut or straightforward.
A crush? Sure. I think you can be in love and still have a crush on someone else.
You could even be in love and still lust for another. That, I have no trouble wrapping my head around.
But to be head-over-heels for more than one person?
I really wanted to say no, it’s impossible.
Turns out the experts say yes, we can love multiple people at the same time. (What the hell would they know anyway?)
And this is where it starts to get confusing, and even a little philosophical.
First, we need to define love. There are varying degrees and there are different stages. All very hard to quantify, scientifically speaking.
The lab boffins must hate love – it’s far too hard to pin down into numbers and graphs. The closest thing they have to quantifying love right now is brain scans, which is a pretty new field of science in the love arena right now.
So without somewhere solid to start, we can only hazard guesses at the answers.
I guessed firstly that we can’t romantically find ourselves falling in love with two people at once.
When put in a brain scanner, the brain of someone in the early love stage looks the same as that of a person on a cocaine rush. Love at that intensity requires a lot of resources. I suspect it would be near impossible to love two people at once, to that degree. Who has the energy?
To confirm this, I emailed Dr. Helen Fisher who invented the idea of putting loved-up brains into brain scanners to see what she had to say about it:
“I do not think you can be in love with two people at the same time.
In the beginning, a person might be dating more than one, and swing from
mild infatuation with one and then another, but things happen to gradually
or rapidly focus one’s attention on just one individual.
The dopamine system in the brain becomes more and more engaged, and the focus on just
one individual deepens until the lover begins to see this one person as
special, unique, different and better than anyone in the world. A primary
characteristic of romantic love is that it is focused on just one
individual… and this focus is seen in the poetry, myths, legends, operas,
ballets, novels around the world.”
So that clears that up.
However, if you are well into a relationship with one person, you fall into the third stage of love, known as Attachment. The excitement of falling in love gives way to more comfortable, bonded feelings of love with your partner.
This is the hotbed area for falling in love with a second person, I believe.
Some digging around revealed that Helen Fisher agrees with me, as evidenced by an old TED talk:
“…You can feel deep attachment to a long term partner WHILE you feel intense romantic love for somebody else WHILE you feel the sex drive for people unrelated to these other partners. In short, we are capable of loving more than one person at a time. In fact you can lie in bed at night and swing from deep feelings of attachment for one person to deep feelings of romantic love for somebody else.
It’s as if there’s a committee meeting going on in your head as you are trying to decide what to do, so I don’t think honestly we are an animal that was built to be happy, I think we are an animal that was built to reproduce, and I think that any happiness we find we make, and I think however we can make good relationships with each other.”
Philosophically, not just the experts but most people in general actually agree that it’s possible to love two people at once (Two out of three people believe that in fact, according to one study).
Practically speaking, it seems difficult to make that work.
Unless you – and your multiple objects of affection – subscribe to the lifestyle of polyamory (which is becoming a more and more popular way of life as a revolt against soaring divorce rates), it’s going to be hard to reconcile two loves into one life.
In short, I decided to tell my friend, yes, you can be in love with more than one person at one time.
But most likely, at some point you’ll have to choose one of them.
Have you ever been in love with more than one person at a time? How did it work out?